In order to contain the coronavirus pandemic, the Serbian government has introduced very severe restrictions to people’s movement, especially for seniors over 65. Curfews in Serbia have been the toughest in the Western Balkans, if not in Europe as a whole. Police committed a considerable number of abuses of power while enforcing these measures, according to media sources. Several observers agree that the country’s strongman Aleksandar Vucic, elected as President of the Republic in 2017, is exploiting the state of emergency to tighten his grip on power, piling pressure on the population, as well as on journalists trying to report on critical times faced by the health system. The Italian Institute for International Political Studies and the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group reported abundantly about these current trends in Serbia.
Apparently, for Vucic and his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) there are no reasons to further extend their already immense power. The party won an absolute majority in the 2016 parliamentary elections and together with the Socialist Party (SPS), the junior member in the coalition, has full control on state institutions and municipalities, as well as on judiciary, security agencies and media. Through some opaque takeovers, several media have been dragged under the SNS influence in recent years.
The worrying economic scenario can be a factor explaining Vucic’s approach in time of pandemic. Serbia’s GDP is expected to decline from 3,5% to even 10% in 2020 as a result of lockdown measures and international economic turmoil (meanwhile Standard and Poor’s has just cut the outlook from positive to stable). The brutal slowdown will certainly affect employment, prompting a wave of social dissatisfaction that could eventually revive a trend of protests (put on standby during the pandemic) against Ana Brnabic’s government. In the meantime, parliamentary elections have been postponed since April.
Vucic’s recipe for power is based on typical schemes adopted by populist parties in Hungary and Poland. On the one hand, they advocate the need of being part of the European family, trying to maximize Europe’s flow of money towards its peripheries. On the other hand, they literally occupy every power structures.
Nevertheless, the EU, since it is beefing up its commitment in the region through new diplomatic initiatives and solid financial support to fight Covid-19, should not be afraid of tersely warning the Serbian government against going too far in this trend. Beijing is increasing its weight in the Western Balkans turning the region into a key terminal of the Belt and Road Initiative, but the EU is and will remain the main investor, lender and market for Serbia and its neighbours.
Journalist and analyst, he covers the Balkans for a wide range of media networks. He worked as electoral observer for the OSCE/ODIHR in Albania, Macedonia, Russia, Georgia and Ukraine.